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Boris - Smile Print E-mail
Friday, 08 August 2008
ImageIf Boris seems to bristle at the success of their cool-rock, straight metal albums, it’s not necessarily a reactionary recoil to the prospects of commercial prosperity.  If that were the case, it’s doubtful that the band would have been available for profile to a print medium as trend-trailing as the New York Times.  And besides, there’s a language barrier that probably makes their words come across a little rougher and more direct than intended.  Boris is a Japanese trio (two skinny, long-haired dudes and one skinny, long-haired chick, all well into their 30s) who’ve been exploring the fringes of psych-metal since the mid-‘90s.  They didn’t gain large-scale exposure with the stateside indie crowd (where they are infinitely more popular than in their homeland) until their well-received 2006 album Pink was released on Southern Lord records.  Southern Lord is fast becoming one of indie rock’s most recognizable brands, and just as quickly becoming one of my personal favorites. 

If it was commercial success that irked them, Boris certainly could have taken a more extreme departure on their latest release, Smile.  But at this point they seem more concerned with their audience’s openness to embracing the band’s full spectrum of drone-scapes, post-rock anthems, light-speed punk, the seemingly endless supply of alternate-take EPs (there are Japanese and English versions of Smile), and their numerous collaborations (with label-mates/heads Sunn O))) on 2006’s Altar, with countryman and Drag City psychometric rocker Michio Kurihara of Ghost on 2007’s Rainbow, with Japanese noise experimentalist Merzbow on 2005’s Sun Baked Snow Cave). In the aforementioned NY Times article, “Heady Metal” (apparently Head Metal bands read more books than Motorhead, and are quicker at calculating math problems than Judas Priest), drummer/vocalist Atsuo name-dropped John Cage in the same manner that Matt Fink did in his recent AvRev review of noise-manipulators Fuck Buttons. As Cage’s philosophy attests, and as Boris obliges – there’s so much boundary-bending going on right now that it’s uneducated not to not seek out those sounds and concepts that challenge your ideas about music, about everything.  Still, the band has kindly provided a legend by which we can initially categorize each of their 15-plus releases.  Boris in all caps means straight, melodic punk, while Boris in lower case has the possibility of sounding like the one-track drone from their 1996 debut.  For those who enjoy the more accessible Boris, Smile comes in all caps.

The second, third and fourth tracks make up the straight-punk, cool-rock, speed-metal isthmus to the heavy stuff.  Boris takes their name from a Melvins track, and “Buzz-In” seems an obvious nod to Melvins’ front man King Buzzo.  In fact, none of these three would be out of place on the Melvins’ Stoner Witch.  They’re up-tempo rippers that pit machine-gun guitar, light-speed drums, unleashed vocals and fuzzed-out bass against each other, the last of which is particularly Melvins-y now that they’ve absorbed drum and freak-bass duo Big Business into their line-up.  The exception is the last 50 seconds of “Laser Beam,” which drops the noise in exchange for a gorgeous acoustic strum.  Takeshi inhales and gets one syllable out for what sounds like an American Idol take – then cut to cowbell that kicks off the rapid-fire “Statement.”  It’s funny and totally inspired rock and roll.

Listening to the rest of this record is like selling ice cream out of a truck in the Internet age, creepy music and all.  There’s no defined strategy, and you’re relying on your ability to luck into the right place and time.  Smile seemingly contains every Southern Lord element: drone, speed, sludge, and something Boris does particularly well: post-rock, Mogwai-style, creepy, atmospheric, starlit, existential room-fillers that seem to incorporate everything around you into a part of the song.  They did this with great success on Pink opener “Farewell,” and do so here again on Smile opener and Pyg cover “Flower, Sun, Rain.”  The track opens with a down-tuned, bottom heavy, distorted metal chord that anticipates an elongated drone; it will quickly become apparent that this kind of head-fake is apropos for an album that’s full of clean breaks, black-outs and whip-stock turns.  Tracks begin and end simultaneously, and none of them unfold how you’d expect.  “Flower, Sun, Rain” is achy as it plods out of the drone into a dreamy, filtered, slow-twisting jam.   It’s restrained, not as fuzzed-out as “Farewell” but just as melodic. 

Boris revisits this song structure twice more on Smile, each time with different intentions.  “My Neighbor Satan” is dark and spacey in its balladry, with moments that mirror Sonic Youth’s intense “Wish Fulfillment” off the similarly-minded Dirty.  “You Were Holding an Umbrella” plays the same heavy game, but takes off soaring for the biggest payoff of the three.  It also possesses the best song title, and bleeds into the 15-minute untitled closer that proves the band capable of sadistic tension-builders.  It’s a creaky stand-off with Sunn-O)))’s Stephen O’Malley; he provides the low-frequency drone against Boris’ stacked vocals and trickle-pitched guitar.  “Ka Re He Te Ta Sa Ki” opens with a doom-laden, buzzing drone, while the jingle in the distance suggests something menacing is marching your way.  There is.  After a minute and half the track breaks into a full-band freak-out of fuzzed guitar and massive drumming.  The vocals are only pasted on top as if to give the track a more terrestrial sense. 

For an album as intricate and varied as Smile, Boris doesn’t let on that they were too creatively challenged here.  Considering the band’s massive catalogue and myriad stylistic interests, this all sounds quite familiar.

Pink ran the gamut of seemingly every metal niche, and Smile finds Boris all over the place once again.  This U.S. release was produced by the band and recorded and mixed by drummer Atsuo.  The Japanese version was handed over to Souichiro Nakamura for mixing while the band was out of town.  That kind of attitude exemplifies the band’s priorities when it comes to final-stage glossing.  When in studio the band will do few takes and use minimal overdubs.  Smile’s vocals were dropped at the end of production, with little care as to how neatly they fit (although admittedly it’s difficult to fit anything neatly over some of this chaos).  But still, Smile doesn’t sound thrown together.  The ballads are downright pretty; the cold and distant sound is clearly premeditated.  The punk songs are a little sloppier.  To quote Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, “Once the music leaves your head it’s already compromised.”  But tracks like “My Neighbor Satan” feel way too researched and inspired to buy into the concept that Boris completely dismisses method in exchange for pure, unedited, raw takes.  That track is a perfect dichotomization, transferring back and forth between gentle churning and sludgy, big-ribbed, deep-bellied, wah wah guitar.

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